Lipstick & Dynamite turns spotlight on the first ladies of wrestling
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Credit: C.G. WALLACE - Associated Press
ATLANTA - In an age of Marilyn Monroe and circle skirts, a group of women in industrial-strength bathing suits grappled, bodyslammed and tough-talked their way into the wrestling world.
With names such as The Fabulous Moolah, The Great Mae Young, Ella Waldek and Gladys "Killem" Gillem, these were the real first ladies of wrestling, who toiled in the 1940s and '50s, plowing the way for the high-paid female stars of today.
Those early years, when women were relegated to a novelty act beside midget wrestlers, are recounted in the documentary Lipstick & Dynamite, which Atlanta filmmaker Ruth Leitman sees as a story of women's empowerment.
"This is a film that every 14- or 15-year-old girl should see," Leitman said. "I'm really interested in bringing this film to an audience that didn't really know this existed." Leitman said she asked one of the wrestlers if she was a feminist, and the answer summed up the practical outlook shared by her subjects. "I wasn't out there burning my bra," the woman replied, "I needed it to hold me up."'
For Waldek, wrestling was way for her to get off her family's Washington farm and see the world. She began wrestling in 1949 and retired in 1979, in between logging thousands of miles between dusty gyms, small-town arenas and armories. "As far as people accepting us, we always were ladies first. Outside the ring we were dressed to the nines," said the 75-year-old Waldek, who now lives in Pinellas Park, Fla.. "We knew we were first, but the idea of being pioneers never crossed our mind."
These women, still very much the entertainers they were in their youth, would like another day in the spotlight and hope the film brings them some recognition.
As for Waldek's review of the movie? "I like it a lot. It could have gone without some of the bad words at the beginning of the show."
The director then jumped into the conversation. "It's very hard to cut in and out of dialogue of women who curse like sailors," Leitman said, adding at least one of the women expanded her 7-year-old daughter's vocabulary. One of the challenges of the film was finding the footage of the matches. There was little interest in documenting the fights.
David Meltzer, a San Jose, Calif.-based wrestling expert who publishes the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, said he would have like to seen more of that footage in the film, but conceded that it probably doesn't exist. "I don't think modern wresting fans have an interest in wrestling history. Even for the older fans it wasn't that big of a deal," Meltzer said. As for luring the sport's fans to the see the film, he said "I don't see them being interested in the movie."
Leitman acknowledges it may be a challenge to get wrestling fans into the art-house theaters to buy tickets to a wrestling movie.
The film, which premiered at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, opened theatrically in New York and Los Angeles in April, and in Atlanta, Nashville and San Francisco this month. It opens in Chicago on June 3, and then rolls out to theaters across the country after that.
Penny Banner, who was a nanny in St. Louis when she was recruited to wrestle in 1954, bristles when asked about how their careers are remembered today. She said many people downplay their accomplishments and added the main difference between the male and female wrestlers was the paycheck. Banner retired in 1977. She's now 70 and lives in Charlotte, N.C., where she trains for the senior Olympics in swimming. For her, the movie is a welcome nod to the ladies' place in history.
"I just wished it was longer. We all have many more stories to tell. I just wish there were more time," Banner said. "We are the lost and forgotten ones."
"Everything we did, we did from the heart. We're still the same ladies we were then."